Every year since 20 March 2012, the world has been commemorating International Day of Happiness.
20 March also happens to be my best friend Lynette’s birthday, an event the two of us have celebrated since 1968!
And I can tell you with no doubt in my mind that our friendship has greatly contributed to my own happiness ever since that day during our first year at school, when she allowed me to use her peacock blue and mauve crayons for my drawing.
But what is this thing, happiness, really? And how is happiness related to health and wellness?
Usually happiness is defined as a subjectively experienced mental or emotional state of well-being. We feel positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.
We then use these experiences to make generalisations about our life and our overall well-being.
According toRuut Veenhoven, associate professor of Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organization (EHERO), at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, happiness is the overall appreciation of one’s life-as-a-whole .
We judge ourselves to be happy, or not, on account of how we feel and how much we like the life we live.
However, others like Professor Ben (C) Fletcher is Professor of Occupational and Health Psychology University of Hertfordshire adds that happiness is not a feeling as much as it is an action.
In order to feel happy you have to do happy and not merely think yourself happier.
Happiness is the consequence of what we do and how we behave. ... Happiness comes when you change what you do.
Simply put, the actions we choose can enhance, sustain and nurture our happiness ... or not. If you want to be happier you have to do something different – you have to do new things.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like the recipe for wellness and healthier living?
That is because doing happy can be contribute as much to health as doing exercise it seems.
HAPPINESS AND THE BODY
Happiness not only affects mood and emotion. It has a direct affect on the organs that make up your body.
According to Veenhoven, there is ‘a wealth of cross-sectional studies on happiness and physical health’ that shows at least a statistical relationship between the two. But he adds, further evidence is needed to show direct links.
These studies ... do not inform us about cause and effect. ... For the time being we know that happiness fosters physical health, but not precisely how.
In other words we are not sure whether being healthy makes us happy or whether being happy keeps us healthy. To disentangle cause and effect, he says, we need follow-up studies.
HERE IS WHAT WE DO KNOW
But here is what we do know:
Happiness may protect us against illness in the following ways:
1. Happiness is good for the heart
It lowers blood pressure, regulates heart rate variability and heart health in general.
According to a 2010 Columbia University report people who are enthusiastic and content are less likely to develop heart disease than less happy people.
Veenhoven contributes this to the fact that: ‘chronic unhappiness activates the fight-flight response, which is known to involve harmful effects in the long run, such as higher blood pressure ...’
2. Happiness helps you deal better with stress.
Laura Kubzansky's research has shown that self-regulation or our ability to direct our own behavior and emotions can help us bounce back from stressful situations.
Happiness enhances our ability to respond to the ongoing demands knowing that the stressful situation is not permanent. This puts less strain on our bodies and avoids stress-related diseases like hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
3. Happiness makes your immune system more robust.
Unhappiness and the resulting fight-or-flight response lead to an overactive immune system while according to Veenhoven, ‘(t)here are also indications that positive mental states protect against illness, e.g. better immune response when in good mood '.
4. Happiness encourages better health behaviour.
Veenhoven points out that several studies have shown that happy people on the whole live healthier lives, are more active, get more exercise, are more inclined to watch their weight.
They tend to be more perceptive of symptoms of illness and cope better with threatening information They also tend to have moderate smoking and drinking habits.
5. Happiness helps you get on better with people.
Happy people have more and stronger supportive social networks. Stronger social networks improves our health.
6. Happiness influences the choices you make.
Happy people make better choices in life, says Veenhoven, because they are more open to the world and more self-confident.
Also he says, happy people are also less likely to fall victim to the pattern of one-dimensional thinking in distress, which might hamper choice .
All this is good news and very empowering.
Still Veenhoven also points out that positive attitudes or happiness 'cannot stop serious illness and that the idea of ‘fighting cancer’ with happiness is a mere illusion that blames the victim.'
So while we are not absolutely sure what the link between health and happiness is, we now that it exists.
So go out and do happy and healthy!
Happiness, says Mahatma Gandhi, is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
Body-mind or mind-body? If you are struggling with physical and mental pain and feel that the dominant health paradigm’s dualistic approach to mind and body seems inadequate to explain anything, I want to talk to you. Join me under the tree in my garden for a cup of rooibos tea and let’s talk massage and SomaSense!